No, I won’t correct your mistakes

05.13.2010

in Beyond the Basics

From time to time, students ask me to correct their mistakes. And they’re usually surprised when I politely say “no.” Why do I do that? The reason is quite simple: I want to help them improve, and there is no evidence that correcting mistakes will help.

This may come as a surprise to many people. After all, correcting mistakes is an important part of teaching and learning, isn’t it? The traditional answer is “yes, it is.” However, there is convincing evidence to suggest that it doesn’t help language learners.

Evidence from the research and the classroom

Correcting mistakes may contribute to some kinds of learning, but it doesn’t help language learners. Dr. John Truscott (Tsing Hua University, Taiwan) has spent many years studying the effectiveness of correcting grammar mistakes made when students speak and write. He has come to two simple conclusions:

  • There is no evidence that correcting mistakes helps. Correction rarely, if ever, leads to permanent change.
  • There is some evidence that correcting mistakes is actually harmful. Correcting mistakes makes students anxious as they try to avoid making mistakes, and anxiety makes language acquisition much more difficult.

Many experienced language teachers will agree. There is very little connection between error correction and better language. Most students will repeat the same mistakes, even after they have been corrected many times.

Why doesn’t correcting mistakes help?

Correcting mistakes is “not a good fit to the language development process” according to Dr. Truscott. New language, better language, comes from input – reading and listening – not from correcting output, or what we say and write.

Language is acquired when we understand what we read and hear. As we read and listen, our brains automatically pick up the language elements that we are ready for and adds them to what we already know. The more we read and listen, the more our language grows. The more we read and listen, the better it becomes and the more it sounds and looks like the language we want to speak and write.

If you want to understand this process better, read The Basics – seven short articles about the basic principles of language acquisition.

Correcting mistakes may make teachers feel more like teachers and students feel like students. However, there is little reason to believe that it will help you improve your English. Rather than worrying about mistakes, let the natural process of language acquisition work for you; focus on reading and listening to as much interesting and understandable English as possible.

No, I won’t correct your mistakes, but I will continue to help you find the best way possible to improve your English!

Warren Ediger

Articles by Dr. Truscott can be found on his web page at National Tsing Hua University.

adrian May 14, 2010

Dear Warren,

I`ve been studying English for at least three years. I can remember the result of a strong correction approach in my regular English course: anxiety. I do think – talking about my experience as a English learner – that you need some time to put in practice what you are studying. For example, I know in theory the importance of final ‘s’ when the subject is third person and for sure I know past, present and future tenses. In fact, I can correct my own texts in English when I read then many times. But talking about fluency, it is common when I am participating in a spontaneous conversation to repeat the same mistakes. What I can conclude? Well, to write and to talk are different kind of process and fluency is not related directly with grammar knowledge but with some standards that I`ve been acquiring reading and listening to understandable and interesting input. In that way I`ve been studying grammar only as a map and my goal is improve my writing style and understand specific patterns. But I would like to add that I do think that reading good writers (good models) I can pick up their styles and improve my writing skill too.
See you,
A.

Abdul Aziz May 14, 2010

I do agree with Adrian about the effectiveness of reading in improving writing. For me as a teaching Assisstant in the University,I always advise my students to focus on reading which consequentely helps improving their spelling,grammar, ideas,acquiring the best writers’ styles,and sometimes learning the pronounciation of new words. Also,I with M.r Warren that continous correction of mistakes hinders the process of learning and sometimes frustrates learners. I strongly recommend to English learners to develop their learning through the input which is reading and listening as the research has proven.
Thanks M.r Warren for this beneficial article.

Kuong Do May 15, 2010

I only focus on listening for over one year. Now, my listening is quite good but my writing has not got improved.

Warren Ediger May 15, 2010

Kuong Do – First, I would expect reading to improve your writing more than listening. Second, I would be curious to compare your writing from a year ago with your writing today. Students often feel like they haven’t improved very much when they actually have; in fact, that’s very common.

adrian May 16, 2010

Dear Kuong Do,
As I wrote before, I`ve been studying English for almost three years. As an English learner I really recommend that you continue your study reading and listening at the same time. The best podcast to do that is ESLPodcast. Listening and reading ESLPodcast you will acquire vocabulary and improve your capacity to understand, to talk and to write in English. To avoid misconceptions in your self analysis is important to maintain your letters or written materials saved to compare after some time. I can guarantee that you will observe and feel the difference very soon (be patient). I`ve been readying/listening every day (consistence is very important) understandable (don`t try to force your development reading complicated things) and pleasurable materials (put aside uninteresting ones) and my English skills are much better now than one year before and I`ve been improving every day. Your brain needs some time and if you continue to use easy and interesting materials you will acquire grammar standards and improve your capacity to write. I recently discovered Judy Blume and she’s very good. Continue your journey and be happy!

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